Jamaica Inn’s protagonist Mary Yellan has left her lifelong home, a farm in Helford, following the death of her mother. The landscape of her childhood, where she capably did “the work of a man” after the death of her father when she was six, is presented in softened, heightened terms as a Paradise of “shining waters”, “green hills” and “gentle rain.” Mary feels as though she’s been cast out of Eden and there is a sense of irrevocability and mutual rejection in her departure: “her back turned for ever.”
It is clear to the reader, although not to the grief-stricken Mary, that the idealisation of Helford is misplaced; she let go of the farm not because of a fated decline that “there was no name for” but because of rising prices, falling stock and sickness among the animals. Nonetheless, she has lost everything: her mother (to whom she was a proxy husband for seventeen years), her home, her work and livelihood, her independence and her social position.
Despite the bereavement which has brought her to Jamaica Inn, Mary’s inner nature is fundamentally heroic and unafraid. She enjoys a physical prowess which renders her “ alive in every nerve” and is described as “gallant” not just by the author but even her enemies within the novel. Mary carries with her an almost patriarchal pride in her family’s achievements: “the name of Yellan was known and respected in the town.” She says blithely, early on, “I’ve never known anything but this life by the river, and I don’t want to.” Her arrival at the isolated Jamaica Inn, which lies “murky dim in the darkness” and is owned by her Aunt Patience and Patience’s husband Joss Merlyn, is the next stage in her journey from heaven to hell, childhood to adulthood, happy ignorance to tortured knowledge.
Du Maurier excels at stewing an atmosphere of pagan ritualism, fated Classical tragedy, fairytale-like mystery, mythic inevitability and Hollywood horror. The inn is described with Gothic relish as being steeped in suffering and death. Zombie-like, it is “like a live thing” but has a “cold, dead atmosphere”, it is “a house of the dead” where even the clock ticks “like a dying man who cannot catch his breath”. The house “reeked of evil” and is “rotten, rotten” “like a tomb” where “the very walls…smelt of guilt and deceit”. Outside, the wind shudders “like a man in pain”, the wooden sign looks like a hanging man and creaks “like an animal in pain”. The deathly atmosphere is so strong that it affects even newcomers: Mary sleeps “like a dead thing” on her first night at Jamaica Inn.
These intimations of pain and death – which are also concrete clues as to what the denizens of the inn have been doing – extend to and are fed by the surrounding moors. While Helford represented physical and emotional comfort, Mary has arrived at a “county of stones…and stunted broom”, “marshland and granite”, where the wind sounds like “a sob and a cry” and arises “from the stones themselves”, as though the very land is tormented and weeping. The landscape works against its inhabitants, with its perilous marshes, blinding fogs and rain that is “lashing, pitiless” rather than gentle, as in Helford. This is “alien” territory for Mary emotionally, morally and sociologically. The wind is described as “a chorus from the dead” and this is both metaphorically and literally true: there are murdered bodies buried on the moor and secrets buried in the locals’ souls, always pushing to come to light.
It is at Jamaica Inn that Mary learns fear for the first time. Having never thought about how her sex makes her vulnerable, she is warned that it’s “no place for a girl”. Penniless and dependent, she goes from being a respected member of a village community to being an isolated, powerless outcast subject to constant terrorisation by local men. The strongest principle keeping her at the inn is a feeling of protectiveness over her aunt, once she has witnessed Uncle Joss’s brutish behaviour: “Mary would rather lie herself into hell than let her aunt suffer”.
Mary’s dealings with Uncle Joss are charged with his violence and her fear and loathing, yet edged with a half-acknowledged mutual desire. This ambivalence is expressed through du Maurier’s dazzled description of him. Like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, who consumes grown women and tempts young girls, he is powerful yet cunning, “lean and hungry”, “a beast that walked by night”. A wolf’s smile and his are said to be “one and the same”.
Uncle Joss’s volatility is tied to the secrets he is repressing. He is the kingpin of a network of “wreckers” who lure ships off-course using a “false light”, cause them to be smashed against the coastal rocks, murder any survivors and steal the cargo. Joss is clever enough to organise the network and cold-blooded enough to murder with his bare hands, store the bodies and loot at the inn and hold his nerve despite the suspicion of the local squire. After murdering a crony who threatens to expose him, the next day he “behaved like a perfectly sober normal man”.
The abuses which Mary witnesses do not seem credible “in the cold light of day” and she is cowed by the (correct) certainty that she will not be believed. She learns that if you are a woman without any power, there is no particular link between being virtuous, knowing the truth, bringing it to light, being believed and gaining justice, a realisation which leads to an overwhelming loss of faith in “humanity… God… myself”. She fantasises about the physical freedom she would have as a man, when she would be able to challenge and fight her uncle in open combat, “and then away on a horse….with Aunt Patience riding pillion.” Instead, as a woman, she has “no weapons” and is nothing more than “a petticoat and a shawl.” Jamaica Inn rots away at her, just as it has done to Aunt Patience, and the two women now “shared a secret that must never be spoken.”
Mary’s loss of religious faith has, in fact, been a while coming. As her mother was dying, Mary prayed for her health, noting bitterly that “for answer came sickness, and poverty, and death”. As a result, she thinks bleakly, “she would offer no prayer to God this Christmas.” The bitterness is compounded by Mary finding herself in an environment which du Maurier repeatedly describes as being abandoned by God, absent of God or ruled either by an archaic force or by the Devil himself. Her final collapse of faith occurs after a shipwreck she witnesses on Christmas Eve, when decent people are indoors celebrating Christ’s birth. The events of that night are not just immoral and illegal but because of their timing have an occult sacrilegious dimension, of mocking and profaning God.
The repressed truth about Joss and his friends’ activities is tormentingly present yet strenuously denied. “I can’t even admit them to myself,” says Aunt Patience. Mary is warned that her hair “would go grey” if she knew the details. And yet it’s the only thing the locals can talk about. The carriage driver who takes Mary to the inn on the first night says “queer tales” give the Inn a “bad name” and nobody speaks up because “they’re afraid.” The inn reeks of death because it is literally used to store dead bodies, and also because it has soaked up the existential pain of the murderers who frequent it. There’s a locked and barred room downstairs, used for bodies and contraband: the perfect both-literal-and-symbolic du Maurier image of a secret which exists openly.
Uncle Joss’s crimes cast a shadow on his own soul and he himself casts a shadow on others; his shadow is described as being suffocatingly huge, reaching up to the ceiling or across the floor. Later, du Maurier expands the imagery of shadows to include not just the idea of repressed secrets looming large but also the constant possibility of sexual assault: both the shadows on the inn wall and those on the surrounding moors are described as resembling stretching fingers. Joss is haunted by his crimes and in a drunken bout of self-pity describes the men and women he has killed appearing to him “like live things in the darkness” – once again, like zombies.
Joss Merlyn is tellingly named, after the mythical Arthurian wizard, yet the spell he casts is of black rather than benign magic. When Mary first encounters him, he pulls her “roughly” inside, jeering at her, running his fingers over her face and threatening her implicitly and explicitly with rape and beating, as he does throughout the novel. Mary is repulsed yet can’t help noticing his “exquisite” hands and the “long dark lashes [that] swept his cheek”. Like all the men in the novel except the local squire, Joss manhandles Mary, twisting her arm behind her back “until she cried out in pain” and warning, “that’s like a foretaste of punishment, and you know what to expect.” She is forced into loathing silence and avoidance through the fear of male violence and the absence of escape, painfully aware that for the first time in her life, she is isolated and unprotected and all it will take for him to kill her is to press her neck “lightly with finger and thumb.”
Uncle Joss’s abusiveness, and that of his friends, has reduced Mary’s once-vivacious Aunt Patience to a wreck. Joss’s domination is so extreme that there is no space to breathe, move or think when he is present. Aunt Patience and Mary are diminished and caught “like mice in a trap”, “like a bird in a net”. Du Maurier writes expertly about the subtle, long-term effects of domestic abuse. In Aunt Patience we see someone whose inner will and powers of concentration have been destroyed because of fear. She is “like whimpering dog trained into obedience” and later “like a shivering dog tethered to its master”. Patience is so afraid of Joss that she lives in “perpetual high anxiety and alert”, “trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience”. The novel expertly describes the mental and physical consequences of years of intimidation: the victim is left “trailing like a ghost”, “haggard, desperate”, “nervy, shattered”, “strained, haunted”.
Male violence against women is not confined to the four walls of the inn but is normalised amongst Uncle Joss’s cronies. Joss tells Mary that she should be grateful he did not rape her the night she arrived or encourage his friends to gang rape her, and that the only reason they haven’t is out of deference to him, because they believe he has brought her to the inn to abuse for himself. When one of his accomplices does in fact attempt to rape Mary during the pivotal event of the novel – the shipwreck on the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, which Mary is forced to witness – du Maurier writes brilliantly about the aftermath of a sexual attack. She describes trauma, inner psychological destruction, defilement and dissociation: Mary feels that “the body lying on the bed did not belong to her” and “she had no wish to live.” She is triggered by flashbacks, shrinking back when Aunt Patience leans over her. When she sees the rapist again she cannot bear to look at him, feeling “nausea and disgust”. Later still, she can’t bring herself to describe what he has done, except to say he “attacked” her.
Uncle Joss and his cronies are described in the language of uncanny transformation and the supernatural. The “people of the moors” are “furtive” and “no more than shadows” as if they have bled out of the darkness itself and are not part of the human race but a separate category of sub-creature: “tramps, vagrants, poachers, thieves”, “shapeless and distorted”, slithering like “dregs” from “every hole and corner”, insubstantial and yet hellishly malign. They shift smuggled goods in the yard in “some weird pattern in a nightmare fantasy” as if hypnotised, moving “in a strange funeral procession” an image which is formed realistically by the deaths the men have brought about. When they torment a simple-minded local man, their “ugly, screaming laughter” resounds like “a tortured thing”. Even the men’s joy is a kind of pain; even when they are mirthful their sin makes itself known.
Although the action within the novel is intensely compressed, spanning barely a month, it carries behind it the inexorable build-up, not of years, but of epochs. The moors are represented as untouched by Christian morality, which is relatively recent: they are “no godly place”. Rather, they are ruled by a much more ancient principle: “the old gods slept undisturbed” on them. While the activities of the men at the inn infect the land, the land’s “old magic” could be said to have influenced them in the first place. The events in the book are “only a repetition of what had been before, long ago in time”, things which are “best buried deep” and have their origin “in far-off buried and forgotten things.” In the absence of a Christian god, the moors are governed either by an arcane pantheon of ancient deities or, as many of the locals claim, by the Devil himself. The stones ridging the moors resemble pagan altars, while one landmark is described as bursting out of the earth like a devil’s hand. It is as though the malevolent landscape induces men to violence, absorbs the trauma of that violence (and subsequently contains buried “things of evil, rotting”) and then exudes it again, to induce a new generation to commit yet more violence.
This epic context is in stark contrast to the brightly coloured, modestly-scaled living memory of Helford which Mary has left behind, where the doctor who treated her mother was the same man who delivered her of Mary twenty-three years before. The darkness described repeatedly in the novel is at once literal, moral (describing murder, corruption and death) and emotional (alluding to grief, guilt and depression). The trees, sky, heather, shrubs, hills, water and sky are all separately described as black at various times.
The novel’s most impressive feat is to take the atmosphere of the uncanny, of midnight terrors and strangely transformed creatures, and concentrate them into a single character who is apparently integrated into the normal day-to-day social fabric of the locality. Francis Davey is the vicar at nearby Altarnun, a “freak of nature” albino with white skin, eyes and hair, who befriends Mary. As with the werewolf Uncle Joss, the shadowy night-creatures who are his cronies and the zombie-like figures of the murdered sailors who haunt them, du Maurier’s descriptions of Francis Davey evoke vampires, spectres and angels; strange pale visitors to whom normal rules of behaviour and appearance do not apply. Davey appears and disappears from the text, nothing more than “two white eyes and a voice in the darkness”, manifesting usually at night and usually on the road, a saviour materialising just when Mary needs him. His “transparent gaze” comes from eyes like “glass”, as if he is a transfigured character in a Hans Christian Andersen story. Like a fairytale trickster he admits multiple times that he “speaks in riddles”. Mary begins to see Davey’s home, which is “like something in an old tale”, in idealised terms. The vicar’s house comes to represent everything she left behind and longs for: “peace and shelter”, “logic and wisdom”. The house is “strangely peaceful”, “peaceful and still”, offering “security and a forgetting of trouble.”
Contrasting strongly with the earthy, talkative, highly physical characterisation of all the other figures in the novel, Davey seems immaterial. He is described as having been overseas, but his past is not fleshed out. His black coat and hat do not indicate anything about him, his speech is unnatural and he is the one character whom it is difficult for the reader to imagine. His presence leaves no trace on the vicarage house he inhabits – there are no religious pictures on the walls and no papers on the desk. Despite being a vicar, he never mentions God. He repeats “I am the vicar at Altarnun” and talks about himself in the third person, as if to convince himself of the truthfulness of the statement, but also to exult in his power and trust within the community. An altar nun is simply a nun who serves at the altar in a church service; but when linked to Davey it contains connotations of sacrifice and connects him not to the altar of the church but to the altar-like black stones on the moors.
Francis Davey is literally and symbolically the “false light” of the novel, leading Mary towards destruction. This duplicity is hinted at strongly: du Maurier describes his face as being “a white mask” four times. Even his smile brings images of pain rather than relief and joy, cutting into his face “like a wound”. Mary finds a caricature he has done, of himself preaching at the pulpit as a wolf – both a fairytale character and a predator, just like her uncle – with his parishioners drawn as sheep, obedient and easily deceived. Mary feels the picture to be not just cruel, arrogant and hypocritical but “blasphemous”, against God, in keeping with all the covert activities in the novel. It is then that she realises that Davey is one of ‘them’, the “people of the moors”, and not any kind of friend.
One of the ironies of the novel, and part of its critique of male abuse, is that despite his intellectual pretensions, Francis Davey is no less a violent, sexually harassing, abusive man than Joss Merlyn and the wreckers. He repeatedly touches Mary, putting his hand on her knee and his arm around her shoulders, urging her to change out of her wet clothes and sit naked under a blanket. His ‘friendliness’ is sexualised and patronising; he reminds Mary that he has heard confession many times and knows the “dreams of women” better than she does. Indeed, his abuse is all the more chilling because it is comes with an overlay of whispering intimacy and superiority, leaving her feeling “like a fool” and “just another woman who [has] cheapened herself.” He violently abducts Mary, gagging and tying her exactly as Joss’s wreckers did. Like a true sadist, he tells her that “your revolt and your disgust please me” and he is “pleased to have touched you on the raw”. Just like the wreckers, Davey threatens to “spoil” her “youth and beauty” and murder her, leaving her “face down.” That is not an empty threat, and Davey’s violence comes with its own traitorous, slinking sadism: he murders alone, by creeping up on people and stabbing them in the back.
Du Maurier is highly skilled at blurring the line between realism and the ghastly fantastic and leaving open the possibility that Davey is indeed some creature who has existed since prehistory and embodies an ancient dynamic of sadism and sacrifice. He claims, like a vampire or a ghost, to “live in the past…in the beginning of time [when] old gods walked the hills”, describing himself as “a freak in time”. He says he has “looked into the past” and “understand[s] something of the night” as though he has lived for a hundred years and either doesn’t sleep or sleeps during the day and walks at night. He describes himself as “an outcast” who is excluded by, exempt from and indeed superior to everyday morality and religious “dogma”. In dismissing Jesus as “a mere puppet thing” he demonstrates his own sense of being both above God and older than the Common Era. He wishes to express a “grudge against the age” by returning to “an old pagan barbarism” so, spouting nonsense about the Druids, he abducts Mary and makes for the moors, where the harsh conditions quickly make his fantasies look ridiculous. His death – arms outflung on one of the altar-stones – exposes his delusion. In his mind, he has been martyred; in reality he is being shot for murder and abduction.
A final theme running through Jamaica Inn is one of love and sexual desire, which provoke feelings in Mary which are strong and unashamed, yet conflicted. She is painfully aware of the close similarities between Jem Merlyn, the horse-thief she desires, and his brother, her Uncle Joss, the man she hates, and she rues “the weakness of her flesh”. Jem is a thinner, younger, stronger, healthier version of Joss; both are demonstrative, earthy, blunt and talkative. Mary’s desire for and aversion against both men occasionally blur: when she first meets Jem he reminds her of Uncle Joss “throughout the conversation”; when she looks at her uncle the curve of his mouth is “painfully familiar”. Du Maurier is brilliant on the humiliating irrationality of physical desire, where incriminating impulses are “never acknowledged to the sturdy day.”
For Mary, love is more complicated than sexual desire and comes with greater risks. It renders women “fallen and degraded”, “weakened in mind and body”. It upsets her equilibrium, “devastates reason” and turns a woman into a “babbling child” whose “privacy of mind” is undermined. Mary fears the loss of self-mastery that comes with love. Being in love is not described in joyful terms but those of “pain”, “anguish”, “sickness”, of threat to her strong sense of self. She is perturbed by liking Joss Merlyn by instinct, despite her opinion of him: “He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.” She judges herself harshly, describing herself in the same terms that she has derisively used to describe Aunt Patience’s submissiveness with Joss: “She ranged herself on his side, she defended him…without reason and against her sane judgement.”
A psychoanalytic reading of the novel might conclude that Mary has linked female love with women’s destruction after witnessing her own mother’s death. Her mother “belonged in body and mind” to her father and had no second husband in the 17 years after his death. Mary’s dying mother links her own demise explicitly to her husband’s death, saying that the doctor is being called “seventeen years too late.” Mary carries from this experience the belief that love is so strong it commits the women in her family for life, but leads to their actual or psychological death; she sees this too in the case of her mother’s sister, Aunt Patience. She vows that “I don’t want to love like a woman or feel like a woman” because women’s loving intensity and good faith lead to “pain…suffering…misery.”
Throughout the novel, Mary rages at the way women are patronised, exploited, objectified and abused by men. But she also has an aversion to womanhood itself, describing women as “frail things made of straw”. Love is a rigged game in which masochistic women demean themselves to serve abusive men. Mary loathes what Uncle Joss has done to Aunt Patience, but there is also a great deal of distaste in the way Aunt Patience is viewed by Mary. Patience is “useless” in a crisis, acting like a “dummy”, compared repeatedly either with dogs or children and described as ineffective, repetitive, clingy and pathetic. Even though the perpetrators of all the abuse in the book are men, not women, Mary still manages to blame the victim, wondering, “Why were women such fools, so short-sighted and unwise?”
Even the squire’s wife, a minor character who aids Mary with the gallant words, “I am willing to help you in any way you think best”, has her talk described as “prattle” three times. In her one other appearance in the novel the woman is the butt of a man’s joke, being duped by Jem into re-buying a horse he has stolen from her, her confidence made to look foolish by the trick he plays on her.
A helpful woman character is mocked, while a man’s open misogyny is not just excused but rewarded. Sexy Jem Merlyn says that women “make for trouble and confusion”, that “senseless or conscious, women are pretty much the same” and “there’s two things women ought to do by instinct, and cooking’s one of ‘em.” He is surprised, because he’s never thought about it, when Mary asks him to consider how much his mother must have suffered as the daughter, wife and mother of abusive men. Jem is playful, beautiful and wild and so, like all women who make excuses for men’s hatred of them, Mary “had not the heart to be angry with him.” When she visits his hovel for the first time, she immediately puts on an apron, scrubs the place, finds a tablecloth, makes lunch and serves it to him.
Once the dramatic events of the book are exhausted, Mary Yellan is still trapped within a patriarchal society. The (male) authorities hustle her away with nice-talking, paternalistic kindness, as if she is “a nuisance and a delay, like every woman and every child after a tragedy.” If she were man, even if penniless she would be free to “go on a ship somewhere” or walk off to find her fortune, with a “heart and soul at liberty.” As a woman, she is once again in need of protection.
In the final lines of the novel Mary grapples with a dilemma: to return to Helford or go off with Jem. In keeping with the post-lapsarian theme of the book, a return to the innocence and security of the past is impossible. Yet so is going with Jem as an equal. “If you were a man I’d ask you to come with me,” he says in his typically direct way. But she is “only a woman” – and his teasing of Mary is ‘only’ a ‘playful’ version of Joss’s tormenting of Aunt Patience.
Mary joins Jem, in a last-minute happy ending, with a fatalistic and martyr-like pledging of her entire self which reminds the reader chillingly of Aunt Patience’s complete possession by Uncle Joss: “I want to …I must; because now and for ever more this is where I belong to be.” They ride off together, turning their backs against the violence of Jaimaica Inn and Jem’s childhood. One wonders if they have been liberated from the past or if the locals’ repeated assertion that “there’s never been a Merlyn yet that came to any good” will be vindicated and the family’s and region’s dark history will repeat itself yet again.
This is a much extended version of my essay for the British Library's Discovering Literature: 20th Century archive. View the original here.
This is a much extended version of my essay for the British Library's Discovering Literature: 20th Century archive. View the original here.